By Heidi Zemach for SCN-
Commercial fishermen and those who work in the fishing industry packed City Council Chambers at Monday Nights’ November 9th meeting to lobby once again for a public use crane at the Seward Small Boat Harbor. Their passionate plea for a five-ton crane to help them unload fish and gear, came too late to make it in the City of Seward’s Biennial Budget for FY 2016 and 2017, which was approved at the meeting without a source of revenue identified for a crane.
Councilwoman Casagranda tried to initiate a motion that would have at least kicked off the funding process by setting aside $50,000 for each of the next two budget years toward the estimated $500,000 crane cost. Her actions did not fly, however. Assistant City Manager Ron Long said the administration, in consultation with the council at numerous work sessions, had already, painstakingly brought forth a balanced budget that eliminated a new gap of $1.3 million. If Casagranda wanted to fund the public crane, he said, she had to tell everyone exactly where in the budget the money would come from.
Casagranda brought up the $75 hourly fee charged for use of the crane, estimated to bring in $20,000 or $30,000 per year, which could help finance repayment of a loan for the crane.
“It’s not a maintenance-free object,” said Councilmember Dale Butts. “Some of the revenues we get from that will go toward that.” He added that he supports a crane, and that the council needs to look further into financing a 10-year loan: “We need to kind of nail this down.”
City Manager Jim Hunt said the city is dealing with the same circumstance for the new Seward Library Museum, which was approved, but without a revenue source identified to fund operations. That is coming from the General Fund budget.
Council meanwhile passed a $10.8 million dollar budget for FY 2016, and $11 million for FY17 that included freezes to city employee’s salaries and step and cost of living increases, and also passed fee increases to local residents and customers for most of the city’s services. For its part, the city will delay filling the vacant Project Manager position, the police/jail dispatch half-time position, a parks and recreation position, and will get rid of the new library aid part-time position. The city will also eliminate non-police employee overtime, and won’t purchase new vehicles for several departments.
Electrical rates will increase 2.3% in 2016 and 2.4% in 2017. Water rates will increase 4.3% in 2016 and $2.4% in 2017; Sewer rates will increase 4.3% in 2016 and 4.4% in 2017. Offsetting the hurt, electricity rates will become seasonal, with lower rates in the winter, and higher rates in the spring and summer months when more customers are contributing to the demand. New special contracts also were awarded the biggest electrical users, Alaska SeaLife Center, and Icicle Seafoods, who will have to pay ever larger share of their subsidized rates. Small businesses, in the SGS rate class have no rate increases for the next two years.
Visitors also will feel the squeeze with increased RV utility site fees increasing from $30 to $40 per day, and RV dry site fees going up from $15 to $20.
After passing the budget, council approved two resolutions worth $184,000 contracting state and federal lobby firms to represent Seward’s interests in Juneau and in Washington D.C. Kent Dawson Company will continue representing Seward and The Alaska Sea Life Center on the state level, and Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh will lobby for federal projects.
In Citizen’s Comments afterward, fishermen expressed their disappointment.
Commercial fisherman Bob Linville said if they really wanted, the city could find a source of revenue for a public use crane. The six Prince William Sound seiners from Seward netted an estimated $108 million in preliminary openers this year, he said. That “sizable chunk of change” mostly went out to other communities, he said. The sales tax alone on that amount would pay for the crane every year,” he said. Fish taxes would bring in $480,000 per year, and $10,000 of that could be spread among each city department. *(See corrections below)
“There’s no reason we can’t do it. It’s a wonderful place. We’re closer to Anchorage, we’re closer to the (Prince William) Sound, closer to the Halibut and Black cod grounds than just about anybody,” he said. “People are driving out of their way from Anchorage to Homer. I had to do it myself,” he said, in order to be able to build his 58’ seiner.
Mike Ritz, of Alaska Marine Coatings LLC, said, “Seward has a whole generation of 20-somethings who are not employable.” “We have the opportunity to have a very blue-collar industry that anyone can learn, and provide for their families,” he said, and it wouldn’t be a “yuppified harbor.”
“You know it really boils down to priorities, and this has been a priority for a lot of people for a long time, and I’m sorry that the council hasn’t gotten that message yet,” said Rhonda Hubbard who owns Kruzof Fisheries fleet with her husband Jim, a commercial fisherman. Seward is an ice free port, and is one of the top 10 fishing ports, she added. “Let’s cut out all this attitude. Let’s make this happen.”
“Folks become disheartened because they know their council does not support them—they go elsewhere,” said Brooke Andrews, a new Port And Commerce Advisory Board member. She called for a new task force with Council, City Administration and PACAB representation to work together proactively. Addressing the few people, who had spoken earlier against the crane, including Icicle Seafoods, she said the fish processor’s crane is not readily available for public use. It’s busy, often in use, awkward, and private fishermen are also busy people who are working with tides, and limited season openers.
Council promised not to drop the public crane issue, although it was left out of the budget. It’s fluid document that can be amended, said Council member Sue McClure. “Everybody is paying for this budget to be balanced through higher rates or no pay increases,” she said. “It’s really tough. We’re kind of up against a wall.”
(Corrections to the comments attributed to Bob Linville:
First: No, we don’t make twenty million a year each, or all of the money in PWS, while the other 248 boats go home empty. The total value of PWS salmon of all species caught by the commercial fleet in 2015 was $118 million. The pink salmon share (mostly caught by seiners) was $72 million. Seward’s six salmon seiners were among the 254 seine permits that actually fished in 2015. Most of 2015’s salmon value went elsewhere. If we attracted a bigger share of the fleet to homeport out of Seward, more of that value would be brought home to Seward and the sales tax alone on that increased economic activity could pay for the crane over time.
Second; Fish taxes already do bring in $480,000 per year. They have brought in 4.2 million dollars to Seward’s coffers in the last ten years. Shared Tax Reports at www.tax.alaska.gov. )